Once upon a time, Betty Dearing would have found it hard to believe that most of the guests at a recent family get-together could wind up lying around with lighted candles stuck into their ears.
Of course, that was before a relative of the Phoenix grandmother mentioned a rediscovered folk remedy called ear coning--a chance remark that ultimately turned Dearing's holiday reunion into a multigenerational ear-wax-cleaning party.
Suddenly all ears, Dearing's guests found themselves up to their Eustachian tubes in ear candles, flaming cones of waxed cotton believed to:
a) clean the ears;
b) improve hearing;
c) cure earaches;
d) enhance mental clarity; or
e) all of the above.
And then some.
"It sounds crazy, I know, but it really was a lot of fun," says Dearing, as if she were describing a potluck dinner that got out of hand. "After you get done doing it, you're supposed to cut the cone open to see what came out of the ear. Everyone got a kick comparing how much wax and stuff was in their cone."
Dearing and her family are not the only ones to wax enthusiastic over ear coning.
An age-old process that some claim was originated by the ancient Egyptians, coning--or ear candling--has long been popular with New Age practitioners and aficionados of alternative medicine. In recent months, however, the footlong candles--available in health-food stores and New Age boutiques--have seen increasing favor from mainstream curiosity seekers, who eagerly plop down $4to $8 for each two-candle set.
According to enthusiasts, the secret to coning is the hollow candle's spiral shape. Once the large opening is ignited, smoke spirals down into the ear, while simultaneously creating a vacuum effect that draws ear wax, ear fungus and other toxins into the tip of the cotton cone.
Operating in pairs, daring do-it-yourselfers now can use each other's ears as a smudge pot in the privacy of their own homes.
And if you wouldn't trust your own mother to stick a flaming torch in your ear, "alternative modality" professionals now offer one-hour coning sessions that promise to clear your head--at $40 a pop.
"It's a real peaceful way to work on the ears," says practitioner Barbi Davis, who cones clients out of her home, a comfortable midcity residence that exudes tranquillity. "Many people tell me it was the most wonderful, beautiful experience they've ever had."
It's not unusual, she says, for conees to describe the crackling of melting ear wax as sounding like "bacon and eggs cooking over an open fire."
A disciple of ear candling ever since multiple coning sessions allowed her to shuck her hearing aid, the bubbly Davis has worked on the ears of everyone from a five-month-old baby to a 90-something-year-old Sun City woman. She's also ministered to such nonhuman clients as a Pomeranian and a rottweiler--and she somehow lived to tell the tale.
"It's all about trust," says Davis, who claims she won't cone unless she's in a "love state."
"Ask yourself, 'Why wouldn't an animal trust me?'"
During her sessions, Davis estimates she's extracted "buckets" of wax, fungus and other "yucky" fluid from ears--to say nothing of spiders, beads, unidentified pieces of metal and a chunk of "gunk" so incredibly large a young client begged (unsuccessfully) to take the slimy souvenir to show and tell at school.
Some doubting Thomases suggest that the brownish wax and powderish residue found in the candle stub at the conclusion of an ear-candling session don't actually come from the ear at all. Skeptics argue that burning a candle in free air frequently produces a similar-looking result.
In spite of--or, perhaps, because of--this controversy, some coning-community insiders insist the popularity of ear candles will wax, not wane.
"We thought it might be a fad or a wave, but every week we've been getting more and more calls," says Alexander McFee of Coning Works, a Sedona-based ear-candle business.
Now offering herb-laced candles available in 11 different "healing blends," Coning Works counts among its customers individuals, retailers, chiropractors and homeopathic doctors. Joking at the wide range of ear-candling devotees, the company's literature features a gag photo of McFee's wife, Irene, coning a space alien's ears.
Even though coning "isn't rocket science," one enthusiast points out that the process isn't without danger.
"It is possible to 'overcone,' and you certainly don't want to get hot wax on the eardrum," warns John Hajdu, co-owner of several Herb Stop stores in the Valley. Stressing the importance of buddy-system coning, Hajdu adds, "I always tell everybody not to use this on themselves. You have a burning product, something that's sticking out of you, so you should never use it on yourself at all."
He'll get no arguments with the last half of that sentence from skeptics like Food and Drug Administration spokesman Gil Meza, who wonders why coning is necessary at all.
"What, pray tell, is this thing supposed to accomplish?" asks Meza, who expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of using melted wax to retrieve wax.
Meza says his agency has yet to investigate ear candles. And, barring an injury report linked to coning, the FDA probably won't, because candle packaging typically carries no specific health claims. Dismissing promises of aural cleansing and other spiritual benefits as mind games, Meza says, "It's just a fad. That's basic human behavior for people to do things [like this] to themselves."
Meza isn't the only one who can't understand why some people would rather light a candle than curse the wax in their ears.
"I don't see what this does but clean the wax out of the ears," says Joel Cohen, a Scottsdale ear, nose and throat specialist. "Basically, a baby syringe with a little water will clear the ears of wax just as well."
Although he takes issue with some practitioners' more extravagant success stories ("How is this going to restore hearing problems, especially for people with old-age hearing loss?"), Cohen thinks that, at worst, coning is just an unnecessarily elaborate way to deal with a relatively simple problem.
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"As long as [coning practitioners] don't hurt anyone, I'm not going to badmouth it," he says. "I don't think there's a problem as long as these people know their limitations."
Coning away back in her mid-Phoenix "love space," practitioner Barbi Davis is only too aware of the boundaries of her magic candles.
"No, you can't stick them up your nose," says Davis, answering a much-asked question. Then, answering another, she adds, "You can't cone your derriere, either--that's why we have colonics.